Several Bay Area Cities Vow to Investigate Misconduct Claims Against Downtown Streets Team

Last week, San Jose Inside broke the story of accusations by former employees against Downtown Streets Team CEO Eileen Richardson and her son, Director of Program Operations Chris Richardson, who they say made lewd comments, paid women less than men for the same work and promoted a toxic, hard-partying workplace culture.

As a result, several public agencies say they’re re-evaluating contracts with the tax-exempt $8 million-a-year homeless services provider, which has offered job training and case management for homeless people since its founding in 2005.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, one of Eileen Richardson’s most vocal and prominent cheerleaders, said through a spokeswoman that he’s unavailable to weigh in at this time. But the city’s housing officials confirmed that they’re looking into the claims—as are Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz, Redwood City, Palo Alto and San Rafael.

Valley Water, which hires DST to clean up South Bay waterways, is also in discussions about how to address the situation.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian said he knew about the claims against the Richardsons as early as this past spring and asked administration to look into them. “Our office was made aware of the allegations seven months ago in May, and our office immediately contacted County Counsel and the Office of Supportive Housing to investigate the matter,” his spokeswoman Charlsie Chang said in an email.

Despite alerting officials to those concerns, Simitian last month sent out a news release applauding the county’s effort to get more funding for Eileen Richardson’s related non-profit, Peninsula Healthcare Connection, which works hand-in-hand with DST.

Santa Cruz County, meanwhile, is delving into the accusations in light of last week’s news. “We did read the story, and the allegations were troubling enough that we are writing a letter to the Downtown Streets Team Board asking them to affirm whether the actions did indeed occur, and to describe any corrective actions taken,” county spokesman Jason Hoppin said.

Palo Alto, where DST landed its first contract 14 years ago, is taking a similar tack.

“Obviously, the city does not condone the type of behavior reported,” Palo Alto Vice Mayor Adrian Fine wrote in an email. “At the same time, the city needs to be thoughtful on how to respond and learn more before exploring potential next steps. City staff is reaching out to the Downtown Streets Team to learn more about the allegations raised.”

The cities of Modesto, Sacramento, West Sacramento, Salinas, Novato, Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco have yet to respond to requests for comment.

San Jose’s Housing Department, which has given DST $8 million in the past seven years, offered similar assurances. “We have seen the article,” the division’s spokesman, Jeff Scott, wrote in an email earlier this week. “Our department has one contract with DST and we are reviewing that contract to determine what action, if any, the city should take.”

San Jose Councilwoman Sylvia Arenas said she also urged the offices of City Attorney Rick Doyle and City Auditor Joe Rois to investigate the claims against DST and that she expects “a full review of this matter.”

“Sexual harassment on the job has a deeply detrimental impact—especially on women in the workforce,” the District 8 council rep said. “The allegations regarding an unsafe work environment at Downtown Streets Team—if true—are alarming, and are not acceptable for any company, especially an organization receiving funding paid for by taxpayers. … For Downtown Streets Team’s work in San Jose to continue they must be in full compliance with the non-discrimination clause in their contract.”

Since 2011, some of the city’s general fund and share of federal community block grants have gone to a partnership between DST and the San Jose Downtown Association (SJDA), which hires homeless people to clean and beautify the city’s core. Participants who graduate from the program after volunteering in exchange for gift cards earn a chance to apply for jobs at DST or SJDA that pay a living wage, which will amount to $22.68 an hour once the clock strikes 2020.

Chloe Shipp, who oversees SJDA’s Groundwerx-DST “work experience” program, says the allegations came as a shock to her and her colleagues. She said SJDA doesn’t interact directly with DST’s management team but with its homeless clients, who have always exhibited the utmost professionalism. If the charges against DST executives result in leadership change, she said she hopes it doesn’t interrupt any of the front-line services.

“Locally, we’ve always been very fortunate to have professional staff working with our program manager,” Shipp said. “My hope is that there’s no impact to the services provided because the services they provide are so vital.”

Jennifer Garnett, Sunnyvale’s PR point person, called the allegations in last week’s article “concerning” and said the city is trying to “determine the facts before taking any action.”

San Rafael Director of Homeless Planning Andrew Hening—who used to work for Downtown Streets Team—said the city is about halfway through a three-year, $300,000 contract with the non-profit, which has “always met or exceeded” its obligations since it struck a partnership with the city in 2013. However, he said the city will investigate the claims that surfaced through San Jose Inside’s reporting.

“The city had no idea about any of these allegations before this article, and we are looking into them in more detail,” he said. “We have upcoming stakeholder meetings, including with our council’s homeless subcommittee, where we’ll get more feedback on next steps.”

Redwood City, which recently budgeted $757,000 over the next two years for DST to put homeless people to work, has taken a similar approach. In a statement forwarded to this news organization, Mayor Diane Howard said “city staff will be looking into the allegations that have been made and will be reporting back to” the City Council.

“Also,” she added, “we have decided not to have a presentation by the Downtown Streets Team this Monday night [Dec. 16] until we have the information we need to make the decision to move forward.”

Pressure Mounts, New Details Emerge

The Richardsons have yet to publicly respond to the claims by Zia MacWilliams, Michelle Fox Wiles and several other former DST employees. But in a message posted to her staff-wide Slack channel, the senior Richardson dismissed the accusations as baseless.

“Allegations referenced in the … article were brought to light in a complaint made several years after the employees had separated from DST,” she wrote, according to a screenshot obtained by San Jose Inside. “However, the complaint was thoroughly examined as part of an independent investigation conducted by the DST Board of Directors. While the investigation did lead to several procedural changes and the implementation of new ‘best practices’ to improve the organization, the salacious accusations made in this article were found to be without merit and do not reflect the organization’s culture.”

Eileen Hunter, who worked as a DST case manager from 2014 to 2015, begged to differ.

“The article was spot on,” she said.

As one of the older employees in her late 50s at the time, Hunter said she found the alcohol abuse by management to be reckless and demoralizing.

“I witnessed the drunkenness,” she said. “It was really bad.”

Wiles, who left DST and the non-profit sector entirely four years ago, echoed Hunter’s claims. Drinking was encouraged and even subsidized by the organization, she added.

“There were multiple happy hours outside the office where Chris or Eileen purchased the alcohol and indicated that it would be on the company’s dime, including keeping the receipts for reimbursement if it wasn’t put on a company card,” Wiles said. “I can also say that there was alcohol provided in office frequently that I saw come in via delivery service that was paid for alongside the snacks provided. This alcohol was frequently consumed during all-hands meetings and openly in the office, often times before 5pm.”

Further evidence of the drinking and partying being tolerated, laughed off and even encouraged by upper management emerged in old emails provided to San Jose Inside this week by former employees.

In one message dated Dec. 4, 2012—back when DST had little more than 10 people on the payroll—Chris Richardson facetiously threatened to alert a departing staffer’s new employer about her “serious alcohol/drug problem [JOKING!] (sic).” Later in that same message, he joked about hoping to draw a different employee in an upcoming Secret Santa gift exchange so he could get her “some sort of glass ‘tobacco pipe’ ;-).”

In another email from the same week leading up to the 2012 holiday party, Hening—then a manager at DST—cited a Wikipedia entry that describes Secret Santa exchanges as often being exploited to “breach social norms of the workplace environment by being sexual in nature or mocking personality, tastes and lifestyles of the recipient.”

“Certainly this type of base, unprofessional behavior runs counter to the culture here at DST,” Hening wrote, “but perhaps just this once we can throw caution to the wind.”

It’s still unclear whether DST’s dysfunction at the top impacted its work with local governments. But an Aug. 5 letter from San Jose’s Housing Department details several concerns about DST’s ability to meet the terms of its contracts.

When the city asked for proof of DST’s reported success of helping clients increase their wages, find housing or secure referrals for social services, the non-profit apparently had nothing to show for most of it.

“Amongst the participants on the list provided by the grantee, the majority did not have evidence of their claimed increase in income or achievement of permanent housing in their case file,” Robert Lopez, a development officer for the San Jose Housing Department, wrote in the August letter about DST’s encampment cleanup contract.

He said the same about DST’s pilot program to beautify Monterey Road.

The housing department also found that DST lacked evidence to show that all the clients it served were even homeless or from San Jose, as per the terms of its deal, and that case files provided by the non-profit were insufficient and inconsistent.

Finally, Lopez added, DST didn’t assign enough employees to keep up with its contractual obligations in San Jose. While the city expected at least one case manager per 20 clients, DST had a single employee responsible for 138 potential program participants.

Just a year before San Jose criticized DST for failing to prove that its programs perform as promised, a joint task force comprising the League of California Cities and California State Association of Counties deemed the Streets Team model one of five “evidence-based” “best practices” for ending homelessness. When asked for a response to the claims published last week by this news outlet, League of California Cities spokeswoman Kayla Woods said that the task force focused on DST’s outcomes—not its internal operations.

“As a result,” she said, “the league is not in a position to comment on any allegations.”

Will Carruthers and Jake Pierce also contributed to this report. 

This article has been updated.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth. Or, click here to sign up for text updates about what she’s working on.

25 Comments

  1. A couple people make $200k per year getting homeless “volunteering in exchange for gift cards”. Sounds predatory and exploitive, like 21st century slavery. Now that the Boise decision is law, instead of police arresting loiterers and jailers forcing inmates to rake, paid city staff and non-profit honkies accost homeless in public places and bribe them to rake. In Santa Cruz folks like Cynthia Mathews, Martine Watkins, and Greg Pepping simply love this.

    At the federal level, we drop money out of airplanes. In our cities, we leave trash bags full of gift cards.

  2. A sign of times to come, graduates coddled by their parents and then by their university administrators, will put you out of business if you don’t make their life a safe space by crying to a semi-pro online blogger. Why would anyone open a non profit and hire the glut of social science degree holders if they are going to shut them down when some has a drink? Wow, the future you are trying to effect Ms Wadsworth, no jobs for snowflakes, no development, crumbling roads, and a whole bunch of petty grievances…

    careful what you wish for

  3. As a resident of this city, I started noticing the changes in services to my neighborhood by DST. Several years ago when they helped with litter on Keyes Street they were wonderful. There were many recruits and the bags left on the street got picked up. About a year ago if not more I started to see less service and the black bags they used were left on Keyes for weeks. It seemed no one was picking them up regularly like before. Unfortunately, leaving the bags on the streets allows people to tear the bags looking for aluminum cans and leave the trash scattered. My experiences with non-profits in my neighborhood is generally not good. They pay workers not enough so when they hire great workers they leave for better paying jobs and the ones that remain are just overwhelmed or kinda lazy. Downtown Streets needs to be audited for their sake and the cities and counties that hire them. I would prefer city workers maintain our streets and this allows better control of the money and the problems that arise.

      • The work DST is being paid to do (with your tax money) includes removing trash and illegal dumping from neighborhoods including Keyes.

  4. Non-Profits are a scam to begin with. They are raking in millions from all those cities while pretending to do meaningful work, which is little more than homeless people picking up trash for a few bucks. Shut it, and everything like it down.

    • > Non-Profits are a scam to begin with.

      True dat,

      The REAL scandal of nonprofits is how much the executives get away with paying themselves.

      Maybe some nonprofits are “honest” and ethical. Often they start out with good intentions. But money corrupts and it is VERY VERY VERY easy for do-gooders to overestimate the value of the good they do. And jump to the conclusion that they need to be paid accordingly.

      Nonprofits are the truth behind the practice of “doing well while doing good”.

  5. Joe Simitian’s behavior and though process are the reasons for way too much corruption in this county. His message was I hear the claim, but we should continue business with this contracted agency. They only react to problems when there is a case like the Children receiving center. To work and to have contracts with the county individuals and institutions need connections to insiders more than degrees and training. Parents and children, friends, and relatives work side by side at the county’s offices and contracted agencies. This is contradicting of California’s law and ethical practice. These laws and ethical standards were made for a reason. The director of the county’s Mental Health Department is not a well experienced psychologist but a well connected nurse. I wonder if The Valley Medical Center will also have a well connected charge nurse instead of a doctor for director? This is a lower standard of care from an institutional level.

    • > This is contradicting of California’s law and ethical practice.

      California is a one Party Democrat plantation.

      If there is corruption in California, Democrats know about it and are involved up to their eyeballs.

      All of your whining against “corruption” means about as much as a TV preacher wailing against “sin”. The sinners in the congregation say “amen” and “halleluiah”, and “he’s not talking about me”.

      Maybe if you replaced the generic term “corruption” with “Democrat corruption” you would start getting the attention of the sinners.

      “Democrat corruption” probably covers ninety percent of the corruption in California anyway.

  6. “Jenn Wadsworth Continues to Feed the NIMBY Trolls With a Dated & One Dimensional Smear Campaign That Serves Her Friends” 3rd rate investigative journalism at its best.

  7. City of San Jose ended their contract for Rapid Rehousing with Downtown Streets Team because they didn’t meet any of their outcomes. Did the same with Abode, a total program overhaul. These issues were caught much too late. How can the City of San Jose expect DST team-members to increase income, when DST literally has their members cleaning up garbage everyday in some of the roughest areas? Really, what San Jose and other cities do is use the team members of DST to clean up litter hot spots under the facade of “workforce development.” In no way, will a DST team member who is working their butt off each day picking up litter, be able to increase income because picking up litter isn’t helping build skills. It’s a glorified litter pick-up program where the DST members are homeless, and remain homeless while doing politicians a favor by cleaning up “hot spots” that will keep constituents quiet. So San Jose shouldn’t be surprised because their contract with DST is for picking up litter by creeks after sweeps, and this is just an example of a contract being presented to the public, initially, saying it does something it really doesn’t. It’s very expensive litter pick up, and we could do better for the DST teams. It also comes down to oversight by the cities, who tend to deflect blame and point fingers when the cards fall…or notice the cards fell too late.

  8. The sitting president in the process of being impeached is a Republican and his crooked followers too. Corrupted and sexually perverted are everywhere not limited to one political party, Trump’s stormies, Clinton’s Monica, Yang Gang whip cream…

    • FEXXNIST, are you implying I am “crooked” because i will be voting for Trump?
      Why the name calling? Why the hate? What have i done to you? You seem very mean.

        • That’s a terrible thing to say to someone, you must be a terrible person.
          And because you are against Trump, I feel all the better for voting for him. In fact,I will be asking all my friends and family to consider it to.

          • I am against sexual predators. You are his supporter. How do you call people who support sexual predators independently of their political party affiliation? If I am a terrible person, what are you? I support survivors; you support predators!

  9. What a low blow! Minimizing the hard work and dedication of each employee at Downtown Streets Team because of a few disgruntled past employees claims. Downtown Streets Team is walking along side individuals experiencing homelessness and helping to change their own lives each and everyday. If you actually “investigated” the truth you would have discovered this from the beginning. At the end of the day Downtown Streets Team isn’t going to stoop to your level. If you believe in discovering the truth about this organization and the great work they do go visit one of their weekly meetings to see and hear for yourself. Downtown Streets Team keep up the amazing work!!!

  10. Jack, that is the comments of those with interest in the agency and its executives all connected to county supervisors. They deny everything until there is a big law suit. This is not the only local agency with contract with county engaging in immoral and or illegal behavior. Employees and clients were also exposed to porn at another agency with connections to county supervisors. There are also gender discrimination claims against this other place. It is an ongoing legal issue. This agency also serves the most vulnerable in the county. The CEOs and other people at these local agencies have a cozy relationship with supervisors. Agencies: YWCA, Gardner, Community Solutions in Gilroy, AACI, and even the county DA’s office! Hello JEFF Rosen! Are you still giving passes to local influential domestic abusers and criminal law enforcement connected to local judges? SJPD and GPD are on top of corrupted elements. Guess what local public officials and corrupted police? WE DO NOT FEAR YOU!

  11. SK Kulak your comment about me getting off the couch is so dumb. You must have a sad life. I have been a long time anti-litter volunteer for the City Of San Jose for years and have also cleaned creeks and for years our neighborhood adopted a section of the 280 in my neighborhood. I commented on this article and what I see is happening with the services we pay as tax payers and not receiving. Any organization should be able to take criticism and move forward. This happens in business and other groups and non-profits. Read the article and if you don’t agree state your reasons and experiences with DST. Attacking people you don’t know is so wrong.

  12. Seems homelessness has become for-profit in San Jose and Santa Clara County. All these organizations and Housing entities rake in big bucks but homelessness continues to rise. People receive housing subsidies or benefits intended to promote self-sufficiency that they don’t truly need. Organizations with no oversight continue to perpetuate the issue by receiving funds that are not utilized for intended purpose. What’s the common denominator? Local government perpetuates these issues in failing to follow-up on program and services mismanagement or abuse reports. Don’t ask for my vote to get re-elected or tax increase until you are held accountable Mayor Liccardo and Board of Supervisors.

  13. I just got a job working on behalf the City of San Jose through DST. Street Teams Enterprises in my employer and issues my pay check. The job is via a city grant (long story there).
    So, as a little guy, i guess I am the one who eventually will be screwed?

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